Ahead of his team’s attempts to move up to third place with the visit of Arsenal to Old Trafford on Sunday, Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal has insisted that finishing in the Premier League’s top four this season represents a success. United’s victory over Crystal Palace a week ago coupled with Liverpool’s draw with Chelsea left United with a six point advantage and a significantly superior goal difference in the battle for the final Champions League place.
With Arsenal going down to defeat against Swansea on Monday, United also retain a slight chance of surpassing Arsene Wenger’s side to avoid having to face a playoff to get into the group phase of Europe’s premier competition. Even if that doesn’t happen, though, Van Gaal has stressed he is satisfied with what has been achieved.
“[At the start of the season] we sat together, myself and the board, and the goal was to finish in the first four,” he said in his pre-match press conference. “We have reached that already with two games before the end of the season, which is not bad I think.”
It was a slow start to Van Gaal’s reign, with United winning just three of their first 10 Premier League matches. The veteran Dutch coach has attributed much of those struggles down to the constant stream of injuries that decimated the squad early on in the campaign. But while happy that those issues have subsided, Van Gaal revealed that Wayne Rooney and Luke Shaw will be unavailable against Arsenal after suffering a dead leg and blow to the face, respectively, against Palace.
“You cannot avoid injuries like Wayne Rooney and Luke Shaw,” he said. “Football is about physical resistance but also about luck. About the second part of the season, I am satisfied but in the first part of the season we had an average of 10 injuries a week. I could never line up the same but I'm happy now.”
Rooney and Shaw are not the only absentees, however, with Michael Carrick and Rafael already having been ruled out for the rest of the season. Arsenal are another team well acquainted with a full treatment room this season, but they have the luxury of no new injury worries ahead of Sunday’s clash between the long-time rivals. That means that Aaron Ramsey has recovered from a minor problem since the 1-0 reversal against Swansea. However, Sunday will come too soon for Danny Welbeck. The striker signed from Manchester United last summer scored against his former club in Arsenal’s FA Cup quarterfinal victory at Old Trafford in March, but will again miss out with a knee injury.
Still, even were Welbeck fit he would be unlikely to get a start. Wenger has named an unchanged lineup for Arsenal’s last five matches, and before defeat to Swansea there was every reason to keep faith with a consistent selection after previously going 10 Premier League matches unbeaten. Still two points ahead of Manchester United and with a game in hand, Wenger is eager for Arsenal to take the chance to sew up a top-three berth and avoid the early-season anxiety of a Champions League qualifier that they have faced in six of the last nine seasons.
“We can mathematically put a distance between them and us and basically secure the top three,” he said. “It’s very important for your serene preparation not to have that kind of stress over your head from the first day when you start again. We know it’s always tricky because you can play against teams who are in the middle of their championship when you’re in preparation .The consequences are always dramatic if you don’t qualify.”
Kickoff time: 11 a.m. EDT
TV channel: NBCSN
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra